Senator Calls for DHS Investigation of Visa Program After Disney Layoffs

Published June 7, 2015

NEWS:   Senator Bill Nelson of Florida has urged that the Department of Homeland Security investigate the H-1B Visa program that allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations after media reports highlighted claims that Walt Disney World used the program to replace 250 American workers with Indian workers who were brought to the U.S. to take their jobs.

Insult was added to injury when those dismissed American workers were required to train their cheaper foreign replacements before departing the company:

In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Senator Nelson asked him to examine “potential misuses” of a visa program known as H-1B.

The [New York] Times reported that about 250 Disney workers were laid off [in 2014] and many were replaced by immigrants hired by an outsourcing company based in India.

Before leaving, some of the laid-off workers had to train immigrants on H-1B visas to do their jobs.

“This program was created to help fill jobs when there were labor shortages, not to take jobs away from anyone,” Mr. Nelson wrote.

A Disney spokesman said the company had no comment on the senator’s request.

The H-1B program provides a limited number of temporary visas — a total of 85,000 a year — for foreigners with computer, engineering or other advanced skills to fill jobs in American companies when American workers are not available.

According to that New York Times report, Disney used an outsourcing firm in India called HCL America to bring foreign workers to the U.S. on H-1B visas.

Ron Hira, who wrote about the issue for the Economic Policy Institute, maintained that Disney opted to hire Indian employees not because they possessed skills that American workers lacked, but simply because it was more profitable for Disney to use foreign labor:

According to government data acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request, the median wage HCL paid [their] 1,713 H-1B workers was $61,984, which is essentially the entry level wage for an information technology (IT) worker, and more importantly, a 25 percent discount on the median wage of $82,710 for Computer Systems Analysts in the United States. Moreover, it’s almost certain that Disney’s 25 percent H-1B discount is an understatement, because many of the laid off Disney workers I spoke with were earning approximately $100,000, and had been employed there for many years, so they had also earned and accumulated benefits packages based on their seniority.

Disney maintained that the use of foreign workers was intended to free up American employees for more innovative work, that the displaced Americans constituted only a small fraction of their workforce, that the move resulted in a net gain of jobs, and that the laid-off tech workers were provided the opportunity to land other jobs within the company:

In Orlando, Disney executives said the reorganization resulting in the layoffs was meant to allow technology operations to focus on producing more innovations. They said that over all, the company had a net gain of 70 tech jobs.

“Disney has created almost 30,000 new jobs in the U.S. over the past decade,” said Kim Prunty, a Disney spokeswoman, adding that the company expected its contractors to comply with all immigration laws.

The tech workers laid off were a tiny fraction of Disney’s “cast members,” as the entertainment conglomerate calls its theme park workers, who number 74,000 in the Orlando area. Employees who lost jobs were allowed a three-month transition with résumé coaching to help them seek other positions in the company, Disney executives said. Of those laid off, 120 took new jobs at Disney, and about 40 retired or left the company before the end of the transition period, while about 90 did not find new Disney jobs, executives said.

Laid-off Disney tech workers who agreed to interviews on the condition of anonymity disagreed with those claims, however, saying that no retraining was offered, and that few of them were hired for other positions within Disney:

They said only a handful of those laid off were moved directly by Disney to other company jobs. The rest were left to compete for positions through Disney job websites. Despite the company’s figures, few people they knew had been hired, they said, and then often at a lower pay level. No one was offered retraining, they said. One former worker, a 57-year-old man with more than 10 years at Disney, displayed a list of 18 jobs in the company he had applied for. He had not had more than an initial conversation on any one, he said.

The former Disney employee worked in project management and software development. His résumé lists a top-level skill certification and command of seven operating systems, 15 program languages and more than two dozen other applications and media.

“I was forced into early retirement,” he said. Shut out of Disney, he is looking for a new job elsewhere.

Former employees said many immigrants who arrived were younger technicians with limited data skills who did not speak English fluently and had to be instructed in the basics of the work.

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